I remember the first time I attended the Willamette Writers Conference, the blend of idolatry and loathing I felt for the other aspirants. I couldn’t talk to anyone. What if these people were better than me? What if they made it and I failed?
The second time I went, I was more ambitious. I reserved my jealous loathing for the presenters. Kelly Williams Brown, the author of Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps gave the lunch-time keynote. She’s younger than I am and a New York Times bestseller. I hated her.
In between sessions, I tried to sell my work in pitch-sessions more nerve-wracking than any interview. This wasn’t about fit, market, or trending hashtags – I told myself – this was about my worth as a writer, my very right to live.
Of course, no one performs well under that kind of pressure, but I made it. I got a contract and then another and then a big press contract. I began dreaming of the day I would be invited to speak at the conference. I would be a presenter. I too would be loathed!
When the day finally came, I imagined myself walking around the conference with my “faculty” badge glowing on my chest like a shield.
Saturday came, and it felt more important to have a coffee with my wife than to arrive early to flaunt a plastic nametag. It’s a good thing I didn’t waste my time too. Not surprisingly, I slid into the presenter’s seat, and no one said, “Look, God has arrived!” Nor was my presenter’s packet stamped with the words, “Now you, Karelia, have earned the right to exist.”
And I found didn’t want that either. I wanted to finish my presentation, head out the nearest exit, and catch my old friend for dinner. I wanted to stroll the elm-lined streets of northeast Portland, admiring the bungalows. I wanted to drive home in the twilight, singing to the radio as I sped past the grass seed fields of my childhood.
People who study happiness say there are three key components to a happy life: a wide social network, meaningful work, and physical exercise. None of those are easy. All of those are free. They rarely happen at conferences.
I’m not saying don’t try. I’m not saying don’t dream. Instead you must hold two truths simultaneously.
Sit down in the office you carved out of a hall closet. Turn on the computer you refurbished from the dumpster of your ex-boyfriend’s apartment. Eat only Ramen and strive. But at least once in the summer, climb the fire escape, get on the roof, lean back against the swamp-cooler atop your twenty-something tenement and look up.
You must win, and you already have.
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